Then What Happened? 8 Things We Learned Writing Our First Sequel

In 2017 our team released our first full-length urban fantasy novel. After the frenetic pace of finishing, editing, formatting, publishing, and promoting our first offering, we thought we would take a well-earned vacation before jumping into the sequel. We set out to take a month to regroup, but one month quickly turned into four and we learned our first important lesson about writing sequels:

8. Don’t Wait Too Long to Start the Next One

Taking a long break may sound perfect after a frantically busy launch, but we found that it was far too easy to keep putting off getting back to work. By the time we knuckled down and started serious work on the sequel, we had lost a third of a year (time we would wish we had back when life events caused another long break within two months) but more importantly, we had lost all momentum. Rather than the energy we had all brought to finishing the last project, we all struggled to find our focus and the words for this new one. We had simply been out of our world for too long. Not only did this struggle to get back into the rhythm of production frustrate us, but it made us realize the next important lesson:

7. You Don’t Have as Much Time as You’re Used To

First books can take all the time in the world to produce. They require extensive worldbuilding and their authors, especially those going indie, have to research and learn every aspect of the business from plotting to formatting. First books can take years. Ours was about seven years from idea to completed book. But for sequels, you have a much smaller window to keep readers’ attention. Now that you have done the time-consuming work of worldbuilding and learning the business, it is time to knuckle down and make pages. Once readers have decided to follow your series, they expect sequels to come out in a reasonable amount of time (depending on genre often in less than a year.) Like any business, if you fail to meet those reader expectations, your reputation and your sales suffer.

6. Reread the Previous Books Early in the Process

You might think after the number of times you will have read your books by the time they reach readers that you would have every detail of them committed to memory. We learned fairly quickly that this was not the case. A few dozen instances of flipping through our first book to check up on continuity details like eye colors, heights, and which side of the kitchen had the stove on it and we realized that our most recent readthroughs had been focused on the tiny details and we hadn’t read our first novel as a reader would in months. We recommend doing a reader’s readthrough before you start plotting to refresh your memory of where you are in the series. We also can’t recommend strongly enough some form of record-keeping for all of the continuity details you’ll need in later books. There are many products available for this from Scrivener and OneNote to old-fashioned Post-Its in a notebook. Which system you use will be a matter of personal taste, but if you’re planning to write series fiction, you will certainly need to use one.

5. Sequels Pace Differently Than First Books in a Series

As we delved into the first draft of our sequel, we quickly realized that the pacing in a sequel can be much faster than the pacing in the first book. Writing speculative fiction, our first book had to introduce readers to a world substantially different from their own. This required a lot of exposition in book one that in some ways slowed down the pacing of that book and led to some fairly lengthy chapters. As we settled into book two we realized that the chapters were paced much faster with less exposition that needed to be worked in. It meant that the action flew by, but it also meant that our first draft was much shorter than we expected. We had to take a step back and figure out how we shaved off so many words and how to fix it. That lead us to the next important lesson about writing sequels:

4. Your Plotting vs. Pantsing Ratio May Have Changed

Our first novel was plotted very thoroughly, and we set out to plot the second just as carefully. Because our first book ran a little long, we focused on tightening the plot and streamlining the action in book two. What we discovered was that with less focus on exposition in a sequel, it is easy to tighten the plot too thoroughly, leaving you with a problem no writer wants to have – my book is too short, now what do I add? We had to do a complete rewrite to expand our second book. In trying to figure out what had gone wrong we determined that the detailed outlines that had served us so well in book one led to us not exploring the side stories going on around the main action in book two. We loosened up the outlines and allowed ourselves more freedom to explore in the second draft and ended up with a much stronger book.

3. It’s Better to Push a Deadline Than to Put Out Something You’re Not Proud Of

No one likes to miss a deadline. It fills many of us with dread and shakes reader confidence if you miss a publicized publication date. Having said that, there are situations where it is better to push a deadline and deliver a much stronger book for having done so. Many authors have missed deadlines in the past, and many more will in the future. Deciding to delay your book for a few months because you are not happy with what you have produced is sometimes the best thing you can do for a book that has gone off the rails. But, we learned this next lesson the hard way:

2. Don’t Set Pre-Order Dates Until You Have An ARC

Especially for indie authors who publish with services like Kindle Direct Publishing, it is important that if you set a pre-order for your work that the finished book is ready to deliver a week before the publishing date. If you have to cancel or move your pre-order, many companies will penalize you by restricting your ability to put any title on pre-order for a year. They do this to protect their own and their authors’ reputations with readers. Authors who say that a book will be ready in February but then cancel the pre-order to revise fail to meet readers’ expectations, something you want to keep from doing whenever you can. It is much better to set up a pre-order once you have an ARC that is ready for early reviewers and is in its last touch-up editing and formatting passes. This should almost always protect you from letting readers down and locking yourself out of those important pre-orders.

1. Set Up a Process for the Rest of Your Series

By the time you publish your first sequel you will have not only learned a lot about the writing business, but also about your own writing process. We recommend that you take stock of all that you’ve learned and come up with a plan for how you will approach future sequels. How much time of between books is enough? What is your best plotting to pantsing ratio? How far ahead do you feel comfortable publicizing a release date? As with so much of this business, the more books you write and release the better you will come to know your own particular formula for sequel success.

For Discussion

What tricks have you learned for writing past the first book in your series? What has worked for you? What has not been helpful?

A. E. Lowan is the pseudonym of three authors who collectively create the dark urban fantasy series, The Books of Binding. Their first novel, Faerie Rising, is available at Amazon. For free original short fiction and all things Seahaven, check out the A. E. Lowan website.

A. E. Lowan

10 thoughts on “Then What Happened? 8 Things We Learned Writing Our First Sequel”

  1. This article is so spot on, especially the pantsing and plotting part. I had to create a much looser outline for the second book in my series because the outline I had before (using the same process as the first one!) was not working. That made me realize that every book has its own unique process. What also helped me with my sci-fi series was to write the first three books (prequel, Book 1, and Book 2) right after each other. The story was fresh and anything that came up in the second book I could foreshadow or create Easter eggs for in the first book, without having to worry about it being published.

  2. This is a great article and very useful for me personally as I am in the throes of writing the second novel in my series. Every single tip above is useful.

    However, my problem is that I feel a bit trapped with the story. I have basically three storylines (perspectives) that are separate for about 60% of the book and then they begin to converge in different ways. Right now, it seems like I keep getting stuck on which chapter or scene to write next. I know basically where each storyline is going. (I have a loose outline.) But, I’m having trouble with fitting them together.

    Any advice on getting through this? Is it helpful to just write one storyline completely, and worry about blending them together later? The problem is that one person’s storyline sheds light on what’s happening in another person’s storyline and I don’t want to lose that tension which comes from writing the scenes close together.

    • That is a great question. Our next novel has three plots that weave together, as well, so we’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with this same issue.

      Any time you need to split your cast into different groups facing separate challenges you have to figure out how to juggle your chapters to address each storyline without spending so much time focusing on one plot that readers forget about the others. But that doesn’t mean that you have to know exactly how you are going to braid the stories as you write. We recommend two broad options for writing these complex types of novels, depending on whether you are more of a plotter or a pantser.

      For pantsers, we recommend writing each storyline straight through as separate stories and deciding how to braid them together during the revision process. This allows you to keep your momentum and follow one storyline as it logically flows from plot point to plot point. This technique leads to a little more revision as you iron out transitions, but allows you the greatest ability to discovery write, focusing on one storyline at a time.

      Our team are plotters and so we are using this same idea earlier in the process. We are outlining each of the three storylines separately, to focus our development time on one story thread at a time, then blending the outlines together into a logical sequence before we start writing.

      It sounds like your writing style is a blend of plotting and pantsing – writing scenes organically with a loose outline. Have you ever tried storyboarding? We’ve found it to be very useful at balancing the structure of outlining with the freedom to discovery write. We’ve heard many different versions of storyboarding, from post-its to white boards. What we do when we need to try this organizational technique is write each scene that we know we’ll need on an index card. For each scene’s card we write the gist of what happens in the scene, who is in it, and any requirements for what needs to happen before or after it. We then spread the cards out on a table and build our scene list from them. We’ve found this kind of visual outline very helpful in sequencing complex portions of stories, especially when the action in one storyline needs to react to the action in another. Some of the most common writing programs have storyboarding functions built-in if you prefer to keep all of your organization aids in one digital place, but we find the old-fashioned paper version easier for us.

      Good luck and have fun with your WIP!

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to respond at length. I think I’m going to go with your suggestion of writing one storyline at a time (even though I hate the idea of abandoning some of my characters). I think it will free me up to write faster without worrying about how everything will fit together.

        I used Scapple to storyboard the first novel and it really helped. I think I’ll go back to it to flesh out my “loose outline” a little more.

        Best of luck to you as well.

  3. I enjoyed this article very much. It's always interesting seeing the insight authors get into certain parts of the craft and business. Best of luck with your sequel and the ones thereafter!

  4. Which is why, despite having digital manuscripts in various stages of completion for 6 books in one series, and 2 books in the other, I have yet to publish any of them. Most recent annoying example that could have caused havoc: I was forced to introduce (well, mention) a rather unpleasant heir to the imperial throne in book 6 of Empire. That has meant going clear back to book 1 and inserting occasional mention of said character.

    Decisions made in a series first book, once published, impose constraints on following books. I've seen this happen with other published series; sometimes the authors simply try to pretend the contradictions don't exist, other times they come up with convoluted explanations that may or may not be plausible.

    By the way, I was under the impression that book II in the 'Faerie' series stood at around 65-70K or 200 pages, give or take. Was it expanded from there?

    • It was. Ties of Blood and Bone originally came out at around 63k, and my pride couldn’t face that, so we rewrote and ended up with a much more satisfying 80k. Still shorter than Faerie Rising, but a good book, none-the-less. Our next book, Beneath a Stone Sky, is going to be much more ambitious.

  5. Good advice throughout. I'm learning about this first hand at the moment as I'm working on my own sequels. My stories are shorter, but I find I've still underestimated the amount of time it takes to write them, and get them ready for publishing.

    I also found that the second part in the series became a lot more "streamlined" as far as plot goes. It was easy to get the idea of the story across to the reader right from the beginning, and I was able to keep the story moving towards that goal all the way through – except where I added some flashbacks to flesh out the backstory a bit.

    By comparison, the first part of the series meandered quite a bit and is more focused on letting the reader get to know the main character than on the actual plot. The same happens in part three which introduces a new character, and where a lot of time is spent getting to know her.

    • That is exactly what happened with us, as well. Faerie Rising, our first book, took years to write and has a great deal of world building to plump it up, so its around 400 pages. Ties of Blood and Bone, the second book, took only a matter of months from outline to first draft, and that first draft was incredibly short, closer to a middle grade book than a fantasy. We had forgotten the world building. So we had to go back all the way to the drawing board and replot, then rewrite, the whole thing. But, it was all for the best and the book turned out well.


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